Frequently Asked Questions About Light Rail

What is Light Rail?

Light rail is the term used to describe the modern tram, electric rail vehicles able to run through streets.  They provide highly efficient urban public transport.

What are the Advantages of Light Rail?

Light rail provides a fast, frequent, non-polluting service through inner city streets.  Multiple doors and street level loading (ie no steps) means that vehicles carrying up to 200 people can load and unload rapidly. Excellent accessibility is of particular value for those with disabilities. Bus loading and unloading of large numbers is a much slower process.

Light rail will complement and enhance the existing public transport system of trains, buses and trolleybuses. A light rail system will add a new route and greatly improve public transport services regionally. it will encourage the shift from private vehicles to public transport and, by relieving congestion, reduce the pressure to build ever more roads. 

What is Tram-Train?

Light rail vehicles can use the same tracks as suburban rail and can run directly from suburban rail lines on to tramlines on city streets. Tram-train refers to a light rail system that uses existing train tracks to link a city centre directly to its suburbans.

It has great potential for Wellington. Tram-trains would enable you to take a trip straight through from Johnsonville, Porirua or Lower Hutt to the city centre, the regional hospital or airport without changing vehicles.

Why is Light Rail Needed?

At present the region’s public transport network is severely compromised because Wellington station is located at the edge of the CBD. This means that the three rail routes that converge on the terminus disgorge their passengers short of where the majority of passengers actually want to go, into the CBD, to Courtenay Place and destinations such as the Regional Hospital.

Public transport services to Courtenay Place and Newtown are increasingly dysfunctional. In the peak travel times, the corridor from Wellington station to Newtown is saturated. Just adding more buses or trolley buses to this already overloaded and congested core route will not overcome the bottleneck.

Is light rail affordable?

The infrastructure investment for an initial route from Wellington Station to the hospital in Newtown would be around $150m. A cost of $20m per kilometre is a realistic estimate of constructions costs.

Light rail vehicles cost approximately $5m each but, effectively, they are cost neutral as, given their superior capacity, speed, and life-span they are much more productive than buses. Savings from the reduced size of bus fleets would cover the cost of light rail vehicles.

Given current economic conditions the financial viability of any major transport infrastructure investment is critical. In cost-benefit terms, light rail compares well with other transport infrastructure projects.

For example, the proposed flyover at the Basin Reserve is estimated to cost around $100 million. Because a flyover will only shift the congestion, that project will inevitably be the prelude to a second Mt Victoria tunnel, currently estimated at $175m.Transmission Gully is currently around a billion dollars.

Given such projects are deemed affordable, a staged development of light rail is financially viable. A rational, and prioritised, list of transport projects for the Wellington region should put light rail at the top of the queue.

Has Wellington had trams before?

Historically, electric trams played a significant part in the growth and development of many Wellington suburbs. The system reached its zenith in the 1930s when 31 route miles had been built (17 miles of double track and 14 miles of single track). Trams services extended to Island Bay, Lyall Bay, Brooklyn, Karori, Miramar, Seatoun, Wadestown and Northland. In common with many cities the tram system was progressively run down after the Second World War as car ownership became common and finally closed in May 1964. In those days the private car was seen as the transport of the future. However, the cities that opted to retain trams, such as Melbourne, have not regretted it.

Does Wellington have the population for light rail?

Wellington City now has close to 200,000 people, with a further 275,000 people in the Greater Wellington Area. Internationally, many cities with a smaller metropolitan population than Wellington are turning to light rail. (For example, many of the smaller French cities such as Angers, Besancon, Le Havre, Orleans and Reims have done so). Absolute population size is not the critical determinant of the viability for a light rail scheme. What makes light rail particularly suitable is Wellington’s geography where public transport routes converge at Wellington station and the relatively compact centre and corridor to the airport. Wellington has the population numbers and the population density in the main transport corridor to make light rail viable. In 1995, Wellington City Council/Regional Council and Railways Corporation commissioned a report by consultants Works/MVA that confirmed the case for adopting light rail.

What is happening internationally?

Internationally, light rail systems are enjoying a renaissance because in terms of capacity, reliabity and comfort. Internationally, the tram-train concept is being successfully applied in a growing number of cities. These prudent cities are preparing for a future of substantially higher oil prices and much greater reliance on public transport.

Is it difficult and disruptive to build?

Developing light rail system will take careful planning but, as recent experience in relaying tram track in Christchurch has shown, installing tracks need not involve great disruption. Wellington had a tram network until 1964 and restoring rails to city streets that once carried tram-tracks is not insuperable.

A 2020 timeframe, as envisaged by Celia Wade-Brown gives ample time for a phased introduction of a light rail system. Such a timeframe would allow for full consideration of all the options, detailed planning and construction.

And what if light rail is not adopted?

Without light rail the quality of public transport services in the Wellington region is set to progressively decline as will the quality of the urban environment. Traffic congestion and the pressure to build more roads will grow and bus services across the city will further deteriorate. At best, any improvements to the public transport infrastructure in the Wellington region will be piecemeal and ad hoc.
Introducing light rail, used as tram-trains, would allow the full potential of current investments such as the electrification and double tracking to Waikanae and the new Matangi Units to be realised.
A successful city is one that works well for its citizens, businesses and visitors. That means having excellent public transport as the preferred means of getting into and across the central city. For Wellington, using light rail in the tram-train mode is the way to provide an integrated high quality public transport network.